Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a respiratory illness that progressively damages the lungs. Approximately 23 million men and women in the United States have COPD.
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COPD takes two forms: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both cause airway blockage, resulting in shortness of breath, chest tightness, a chronic productive cough and/or wheezing. Laboring to breathe can limit activity, diminish quality of life and put extra strain on the heart.
COPD has no cure. However, you can take steps to arrest its progress and enjoy life, says Cleveland Clinic lung specialist Kathrin Nicolacakis, MD. Start with these six ways to live better with COPD:
1. If you smoke, stop
Quitting can arrest COPD. If you quit early enough, near-normal lung function may return. Try a smoking cessation program. Combining nicotine replacement with counseling, group support and medication is your best chance of success.
2. Be smart about exercise
Moderate exercise will not hurt your lungs. In fact, it can lessen COPD symptoms, strengthen your heart and reduce stress. Build up to 20 to 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. Combine a safe cardiovascular activity you enjoy with stretching and strengthening exercises. Ask your doctor for guidance. Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, taking twice as long to exhale as to inhale. Rest before and after exercise, and wait an hour and a half after meals to work out.
3. Take medications as directed
Your doctor will tailor COPD medications to your needs. Medications include inhalers that open your airways or reduce airway inflammation, supplemental oxygen, and alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) infusions if you have an inherited deficiency. PDE4 enzyme inhibitors can reduce inflammation in some patients. You also need flu and pneumonia vaccines to prevent serious illness.
4. Conserve your energy
Breathing takes more energy for people with COPD. So get plenty of sleep at night and plan for one rest period per day. Elevate your head at night and your feet during the day when your ankles swell. Rest before and after activities. Make realistic plans for chores and avoid extreme exertion, such as heavy lifting, raking and shoveling. Avoid working long days.
5. Prevent respiratory infections
Wash your hands carefully, especially after being outside. Get a flu shot six weeks before the start of flu season each year and get the Pneumococcal vaccine every five years to help prevent pneumonia. See your doctor if you think you’re getting sick; antibiotics can prevent serious chest infections.
6. Eat right
Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re too heavy, your heart and lungs have to work too hard. If you’re too thin, you’re more easily fatigued and at higher risk of chest infections. Drink six to eight glasses of caffeine-free liquid every day to thin mucus in the airways. Eat fiber to keep your digestion moving. Limit salt to avoid water retention and bloating. Avoid overeating. If you get full too fast, consider five to six small meals a day, take small bites, and save liquids for the end of the meal. If you have an oxygen cannula, wear it while eating.
Following these steps can make living with COPD more manageable and allow you to stay active and involved with family and friends. Whenever questions or concerns arise, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare team.